Hester Creek is joining the 90 point circle
An individual at Hester Creek Estate Winery recently posed to me an exasperated question: “Don’t Hester Creek’s wine deserve 90 points yet?”
The question was not directed at my reviews but rather at the general attitude toward Hester Creek in the wine writing community.
Well, after tasting the winery’s current three reserve reds, I agree that it is time we revised our attitude. Hester Creek is finally realizing the potential of its great vineyard site on the Golden Mile south of Oliver. Since being taken over in 2004 by Prince George businessman Curt Garland, the winery has emerged from its turbulent history. It is now poised as a winery to be reckoned with for wines that are top quality but not over-priced, a sometimes elusive combination in the Okanagan.
The potential of the site was first grasped by Joe Busnardo, an Italian immigrant who began growing vinifera grapes here in 1968. Hardly anybody was growing vinifera at the time. The wineries refused to pay Joe a premium for vinifera and then eventually forced him to open Divino Estate Winery in 1983, giving himself a home for his grapes.
He sold the winery in 1996, relocating Divino to the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island.
The new owners, including winemaker Frank Supernak, renamed the winery Hester Creek, after a creek flowing beside the property. The creek, in turn, was named after Hester Haynes, whose father was a pioneer judge and rancher in the south Okanagan. Legend has it that she like to swim in the creek.
Under its current ownership, Hester Creek has celebrated that connection with a pioneer family (Hester White, as she became, lived until 1963.) The new Hester Creek label includes the logo of a female swimmer and some back labels recite this bit of history.
Frank Supernak and his partners did a great deal to wrestle the 75-acre vineyard and the rustic winery into shape over six years. However, they were undercapitalized. Frank finally left in the summer of 2002 because he was unhappy with the way Hester Creek was being run. (He died that November in an accident in another winery.)
He apparently had reason for being unhappy. Hester Creek slide into receivership and Garland acquired the winery for about $5 million in a court auction. The tumult did not do much good for the winery’s reputation.
Garland, who has probably spent another $5 million on Hester Creek since buying it, has made all the right moves to turn around the wines and the reputation. In 2006 he hired a winemaker from Ontario, Robert Summers, whose nearly two decades of experience included several years as national winemaker for Andrew Peller Ltd.
And he has given Summers the tools to make good wine, including a modern 35,000-case winery to replace the original Divino winery. It was a rickety affair, lacking hot water or safe electrical wiring. (One former winemaker complained about getting shocks.) The new winery is full of state of the art equipment – and it has an expansive new tasting room capable of swallowing up the crowds without feeling crowded.
Some of the most important investments have been in the vineyard. Drip irrigation has replaced overhead sprinklers. Malbec, Petit Verdot and Syrah were planted in 2005, along with a good block of Chardonnay. In 2007 and 2008, a 22,000-vine block of Pinot Gris was added.
These are in addition to the varieties already grown there, including Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Blanc and Trebbiano planted before 1975. Having such old vines can be a considerable advantage in the production of quality wines.
The current Reserve wines represent, in a sense, transition wines. The 2005 vintage was in the winery’s barrels when Summers arrived in June, 2006 but he finished the vintage brilliantly. The vintages from 2006 through 2008 were made in the old winery, although with the benefit of new fermenters and barrels.
The quality of those reserve wines should create a lot of excitement about future Hester Creek releases, a rising number of which should be in the 90 plus range.
Here are my notes:
Hester Creek 2006 Reserve Cabernet Franc ($26.05). Joe Busnardo planted well when he chose this variety as flagship red for the vineyard. The winery now has almost 14,000 Cabernet Franc vines, half of them planted before 1970. My guess is that those old vines produced the 460 cases of this reserve wine. It begins with an alluring aroma of spices, red berries and vanilla. The brambleberry flavours are nicely integrated with the oak. The long ripe tannins give the wine a satisfying fullness. 88-90.
Hester Creek 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($35.09). Only 300 cases of this have been released. An elegant red, it has had its tannins polished with good barrel and bottle aging. As a result, the texture is subtle. The wine has flavours of vanilla, plum, chocolate and coffee. 88-89
Hester Creek 2006 Reserve Merlot ($26.05). This delicious wine, of which 850 cases has been released, is definitely made from some of the pre-1975 Merlot in the vineyard. The wine presents itself with alluring berry aromas and a tasty scoop of sweet berry fruit on the palate. It has a rich juicy and yet concentrated texture and a satisfying finish. 90